Resistance Grows to Drug Ads
Food groups call for ban on adverts for animal antibiotics
The practice of advertising antibiotics to farmers has been condemned by a group of environmental and food related NGOs, who say that it adds to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.
In response to a government consultation on the regulation of vetinary medicines by Defra, the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming, Sustain and the Food Ethics Council say that the practice of placing adverts in agricultural publications undermines the basis of prescribed medicines as well as threatening to transfer resistant bacteria to humans.
According to the British Society of Animal Science, antiobiotics have been used in farm animals over the past 40 years for the purposes of treatment and prevention and illnesses yet also for "performance enhancement" - in other words to increase growth rate and yield.
However their use as growth promoters was banned across the EU from 2006 due to the possible risks posed to human health.
Increased use of antibiotics in animals has been documented to result in drug-resistant bacteria which could be passed to humans along the food chain, as evidenced in a 1997 World Health Organisation (WHO) report.
Such resistance renders even the strongest antibiotics less and less potent and gives rise to so-called 'super-bugs' such as MRSA and clostridium dificil. Nevertheless antibiotics are still routinely used in agriculture.
In the US the influence of pharmaceutical companies within the agriculture market is huge; according to a paper published in 2002 in the American journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "over half of the antibiotics that are produced in the U.S. are used for agricultural purposes", while in 2007 the US group Union of Concerned Scientists estimated this figure to be as high as 70%. Critics say the increased output of inexpensive meat, milk and eggs is gained at the expense of human health and is used to compensate for the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of intensive animal farming.
The view that gratuitous use of antibiotics poses a danger to human health is not a minority one. Last year the UK government's chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson wrote that "every unnecessary prescription ... is potentially a death warrant for a future patient". An article in The Ecologist last week reported how scientists are now saying that a resistant form of E.coli has spread to more than one in three dairy farms in England and Wales.
The banning of advertising of antiobiotics was first recommended by the government-appointed Swann Committee in 1969. However according to a Social Association spokesperson it was abandoned due to an "industry campaign to discredit the committee's recommendations". They went on to say that a proposed ban in 2005 was similarly torpedoed following the efforts of "a vocal campaign from the pharmaceutical industry". As a result, the UK is now the only EU state where advertising continues.
Now it appears that opposition will be spearheaded by the farming publications, which if a ban were to be implemented, would lose out on advertising revenues. They have been joined by the National Farmers' Union (NFU) who instead prefer the creation of a voluntary accreditation scheme for online veterinary pharmaceutical sites.
However this 'soft-touch' self-regulatory approach is unlikely to appease those in the organic and sustainable food movement and the scientists who fear the accelerating impotence of antibiotics.